The Magazine

Saakashvili Takes Paris

A president and an intello walk into a Left-Bank bar...

Nov 24, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 10 • By ANNE-ELISABETH MOUTET
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They were awaiting the Georgian aventuriste loaded for bear. Introducing the guest, Bernard Guetta, the morning foreign affairs moderator, reminded us that Saakashvili's calling Europe's possible abandonment of Georgia a "new Munich" had "the support of the American right." Having painted the Neocon cross squarely on Saakashvili's chest, Guetta continued. Georgia had "provoked" Russia, which felt threatened by the suggestion of an "unnecessary and unfeasible extension of NATO" to Georgia and Ukraine, but "thankfully" the United States "had not moved" to defend its ally. Common sense and world stability dictated that Europe and the United States should abstain from "pushing Russia too far" and should instead consider her "offer of cooperation." Nicolas Demorand, France Inter's news editor, then brought out "independent evidence" that Georgia had attacked first. Even the listeners during the phone-in segment were hostile.

Saakashvili, though, gave as good as he got. The OSCE monitor who gave the supposed "independent evidence" has since been fired, he countered. "There wasn't a single Georgian soldier on Russian soil at any time. It was our towns which were bombed, our territory which was invaded, our population which was pushed out or killed by the thousands, even after the EU agreement was signed." A town called Akhalgory was even renamed Leningory: "This in the 21st century." His hosts were dismissive and urged him to reconsider. Joining NATO was a pipedream. "America's support for Georgia weakens and will weaken even more under President Obama." In vain did Saakashvili quote the president-elect's words from the debates, or note Senator Biden's trip to Georgia during the summer war. "Don't you feel how the wind is changing in Washington?" he was admonished.

The rest of the day, save for his 40-minute meeting with Sarkozy, Saakashvili spent giving print interviews, taping more television segments, and, finally, joining Raphaël Glucksmann on Le Grand Journal, a one-hour early evening news program on Canal+, France's premier pay-TV channel.

This could have gone for or against Saakashvili. Glucksmann's presence and the duo's practiced, if slightly smug, allusions to their youth, clinched it. The Le Monde-quoting Saakashvili (with one more reference to meeting his wife in Strasbourg) was anointed as cool by both the studio audience and the show's regulars. These had decided to use the occasion to bash Sarkozy, always a well-received exercise. ("He campaigned saying that Putin had Chechen blood on his hands, and now they're best buddies! All he answered last summer when Putin said he wanted to have you 'strung up by the balls' was 'You can't do that, do you want to end up like George Bush?' ")

Saakashvili smiled at the show's famous political puppets, at the generously décolletaged weather girl, and even during the short video segment showing him coming out of the Elysée meeting earlier in the afternoon and looking a little forlorn on the palace steps when Sarkozy turns away after shaking his hand. The Georgian president demonstrated the required sense of distance accepted as proper manners in the postmodern political discourse practiced by countries where the memories of foreign invasion has faded away.

Throughout his French tour, Saakashvili gave his rather impressively sophisticated all and could only hope that it had advanced the cause of his beleaguered country on the European stage.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a political journalist in Paris and a frequent contributor to the BBC.